Breaking Down the Changes Neymar Has Made to Take His Game Forward

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Breaking Down the Changes Neymar Has Made to Take His Game Forward
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The same mischievous, daring spirit Neymar had when he arrived at Barcelona remains. It is everything else that has changed.

In two-and-a-half years, the Brazilian star has gone from a player most people in Europe had only seen on YouTube to reaching the Ballon d'Or podium.

There are three main elements Neymar had to conquer to move his game forward, making changes in attitude and mentality, physically and also in his actual play on the pitch.

Each of those sections forced the Barcelona forward to make various adjustments, some small, others big. Often changes in one section are crucial for changes in another—they overlap and combine.

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Neymar moved from the Brazilian top flight to a La Liga giant. That’s a huge shift, skipping several steps in one go.

His compatriots who paved the way for him at Barcelona—Ronaldo, Romario, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo—had all featured for other European sides before earning their place at Camp Nou.

As such, there was always going to be a period of adaptation before he became comfortable.

Neymar had to get used to training once per day, in a big session, instead of twice, in smaller sessions, as players often do in Brazil, as well as changing his diet.

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His father explained some of the key cultural changes Neymar made to Brazil-based correspondent Joaquim Piera in an interview in Spanish newspaper Diario Sport:

Neymar Jr is a Brazilian footballer who comes from a culture that trains twice a day and plays many more games. The first year we realized that the culture of Europe is a single workout with more intensity, Neymar needed to know how the new system worked.

[...]

The club nutritionist changed his diet. Culturally this is something difficult for Brazilians, who have a base of rice and beans.

[...]

Everything changes with respect to Brazil. Schedules, habits need to adapt and we have done everything possible to speed up this process. Last year this was ok, we won the treble, and this year we go for more!

Another key factor, mentioned by his father in that interview, was bringing two professionals from Santos to Barcelona to work with Neymar—fitness trainer Ricardo Rosa and physiotherapist Rafael Martini.

After his first year, in which Neymar played well in fits and starts but rarely showed signs he was on the verge of becoming one of football’s greats, they were flown out to the Catalan capital.

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Both Rosa and Martini visited the Sport office in Barcelona to reveal more details about their roles in Neymar’s day-to-day life.

The pair explained they agreed with the club they could work with the forward and since have maintained good contact, an "excellent partnership."

Injury prevention is their main aim, while the club is more focused on the general fitness, speed and agility work. That said, they often watch training at the Ciutat Esportiva training ground to keep an eye on the forward.

During the Club World Cup, the pair flew with Neymar to Japan to help him recover from an abductor muscle injury, successfully doing so to allow him to compete in the final against River Plate.

Rosa explained in the Sport article: "Our two disciplines, physiotherapy and physical preparation, complement each other as we had both been together at Santos.

"We have a great understanding in the philosophy of work, and due to our similarities personally and professionally, we have found a balance and that’s reflected in Neymar’s performances."

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His physical work has led to him putting on muscle, bulking up to face up to the demands of the top flight. La Liga isn’t seen as a "tough" division, but there are plenty of players who can stick a boot in when it’s called for—and sometimes when it’s not.

In his first year, if defences kicked Neymar or worked him hard, he might shrink away. Now he grows. He’s the most targeted player in the top flight by some distance. If you watch any Barcelona game, opponents will try to stop him in any way they can, usually illegally.

Per Sport, Neymar gained five kilograms of muscle mass. And when asked about it, he replied: "It's not so I can boast, that doesn't interest me. It's so I can be more efficient.

"What I want is to be the best on the pitch; it doesn't matter if people see me as good looking or not."

His improved fitness and strength have also allowed Luis Enrique to leave him on the pitch more. The number of games he gets substituted in has dropped dramatically.

Things came to a head last season when Neymar was taken off against Sevilla. The Brazil captain was not happy with the Barcelona coach’s decision to substitute him. It was the 15th time that season he had been taken off, leading to him being frustrated—Messi had been substituted once at that point.

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But feelings are different now. Neymar is part of a deal between the coach and the MSN forward line, according to Sport’s Jordi Gil. He says the trident have total liberty to play how they like, along with free-kicks and penalties, while in turn they promise not to undermine the coach.

Neymar has also learned how to work with his team-mates for a net gain. Now the front three come in and out of focus as they like, allowing each other to take the glory.

When Messi was out injured for two months, Neymar and Suarez stepped up their games to fill the gap. And when he was fit again? It took just a couple of games for things to flow like normal again.

There are still areas Neymar can work on. The more consistent he can become, the more end product he will have.

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It has been 100 games since the MSN attacking trident first played together. In that time, Neymar has fewer goals and assists than Luis Suarez, according to Sport’s statistics.

Some of that is down to his game being how it is; his runs often destabilise the defence and then he crosses or passes to his team-mates. Some of it is to featuring in fewer games than the other two. But some of it is down to inaccuracy.

Neymar has 56 goals and 24 assists in a total of 79 of the 100 games, while Suarez has 68 goals, 39 assists in 86 games. Messi has 86 goals, 33 assists and has featured in 84 of the 100 games.

However, the Brazilian is the youngest of the trident and, at 24, has many years ahead to hone his skills and become an even more important player. 

All this is not to say Neymar is too inconsistent, just that he could be more consistent. After all, he did score in both legs of the UEFA Champions League quarter-final, semi-final and then the final itself as Barcelona completed their historic treble last season.

His spectacular performances landed him on the Ballon d'Or podium in Zurich, where he finished third, behind Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. The hard thing will be for anyone to remove him from it, injury notwithstanding. 

The one thing that hasn’t changed is Neymar’s playfulness, his willingness to go for the unpredictable. At times, the Brazilian was questioned for his flicks and tricks, even by his coach, but those days are long gone.

Now Luis Enrique backs him at every given opportunity. They are no longer a garnish but have been incorporated into the meat of Neymar’s play. A rabona is a legitimate way to cross the ball. A rainbow flick is part of his armoury when it comes to moving past an opponent. You can take the Brazilian out of Brazil...

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